Build A Great City

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The adventure took me to Lake Worth last week.

Thanks to the wonderful Danika Dahl (www.I-Love-Delray-Beach.com) and my friend Greg Rice, I had the opportunity to bring some books and some thoughts to Lake Worth last week.

We had a great discussion about cities, downtowns, economic development and local politics with an emphasis on Lake Worth’s enormous potential. I began by emphasizing that they not me were the experts when it came to Lake Worth. While I have visited the city innumerable times and enjoy the downtown, its restaurants, festivals and beachfront casino and pier, I don’t live and breathe the community like people who live and work there do. But I do think there are some universal truths and principles for community building that can work anywhere if they are tailored to local sensibilities. But when it comes down to it, citizens are responsible for creating the identity, look and feel of their city. And each city should strive to have its own personality and style.

Below are the notes I took with me which framed the conversation. I thought I would share. It was a great night, with lots of intelligent discussion, some super ideas and a lot of inspiration. In an age of social media and technology it’s reassuring to see how powerful it is for people to gather and talk as neighbors with a shared passion for creating a great city. Thanks Danika and Greg for the opportunity. Local blogger Wes Blackman–a  really terrific urbanist himself– did a three part series on the evening that I am very appreciative of. You can find Wes’ blog at http://wesblackman.blogspot.com/.

Forge a Vision–

  • Involve as many stakeholders as possible.
  • Elected officials and property owners must be bought in
  • Begin to Implement immediately; prioritize and get going. If you fail to act, the vision fades and you lose the trust of those who volunteer and care.
  • Celebrate and market the small victories; build momentum because success breeds success.
  • City Budgets should reflect the citizens vision.
  • Stick to the vision: it takes time. Stare down the inevitable resistance and have patience and faith.
  • Remember that visions are living and breathing documents, principles should be stuck to, but good visions grow and are flexible to meet changing times.

Visioning tips:

Each city is different. Build on your strengths and assets. Inspiration can come from local history, local art, local architecture and design, but also embrace new ideas and changing times.

Be mindful of your strengths weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Guard against complacency. Don’t let failures or missteps bog you down, learn and move on. Similarly don’t let success make you smug or lazy.

When elections come, pin down candidates on their views of the adopted vision. Do they see themselves as being responsible to making it happen or are they running to upend the vision?

Require participants to put your city first, ahead of personal agendas, petty feuds and egos. Look for servant leaders and avoid those who think they are the smartest people in the room, regardless of the room they are in.

Remind people immediately when they stray…ignoring problems allows them to fester and grow. Insist that the citizen’s vision be honored. Be willing to fight for it—and count on having to do so.

 

Brand your street/downtown/city

What is your city’s style, what’s its promise, what’s its vibe? Once you identify your brand identity: market, promote and relentlessly work to bring people downtown.

Embrace change, but make sure change respects your city and its history. You can’t stop change, but you can shape it. The best visions and brands embrace the past, the present and the future.

Establish a culture of “how may I help you” versus “watch me stop you”. This does not mean compromising standards but it does mean being business friendly and making an effort to land deals and make things happen. Developers and investors don’t mind tough standards but they do require a fair, predictable and timely process.

A vision begins getting old the moment it’s adopted. Every day it lingers its damaged, every day you don’t talk about it people will fail to understand it. A vision is a flame. It needs to be tended to and you need to constantly educate the community of its importance and rationale. A vision is your best economic development tool, it’s what you sell.

Events are important. They bring people to your city. They allow for people to meet, talk and gather.

Public spaces and placemaking are critical. But they must be safe and active while also allowing for quiet enjoyment.

Culture is important too.–the arts are critical. Residents seek them out and so do visitors and companies.

Make sure elected officials are champions of the vision. They need to see themselves as stewards with a responsibility to make the vision a reality and to protect the vision.

If there is no vision or if the vision is shoved off to the sidelines personal agendas will take over, the vacuum will be filled with politics.

You need a team. The right people on the bus in the right seats. And those people need to be able to work together well. That doesn’t mean they will always agree but it means that they are able to overcome differences, trust each other and feel passionate about the vision and mission. Once a decision is made move on; there will be times you agree and times when you disagree.

Positioning is critical. Where does your city fit in the local and regional landscape? Delray did not want to become Boca—as successful as Boca is. Boynton should not be Delray. But city’s also have to know what is possible. Boynton is pursuing an identity as a city friendly to millennials—with workforce housing, breweries, an arts scene and inexpensive space for new companies. It’s a solid strategy/position because it counters Delray which has become expensive and a place where it is difficult to win approvals.

A good place to start

SWOT Analysis-

  • An old fashioned tool, but a good place to begin.
  • Strengths—What are the best things about Lake Worth?
  • My take: Outsiders view…
  1. A whole lot of amenities for a small city. A waterfront park, a real downtown, great history, two main streets, human scale, charming cottages, relatively affordable, a waterfront golf course, a beautiful ocean front casino, a great pier, some great restaurants, walkable. Engaged community, abundance of creatives. Central location in county, near airport and other cities. Diverse and tolerant.
  • Weaknesses

 

  • My take:
  • Crime, vagrancy, lack of residential density to support local businesses and restaurants, lack of industry, derelict properties, sense that Lake Worth has been on the brink for a long time but never quite gets there, vacancies downtown. Financial struggles, aging infrastructure.
  • Opportunities

 

  • My take:
  • Great wealth east of the bridge that could be attracted to shop and dine downtown, a great “old Florida, laid back unpretentious downtown” that has tremendous appeal, historic buildings ripe for adaptive re-use, add downtown housing and small office, co-working, incubation, emphasis on artists, ability to attract people to close-in neighborhoods through some bold program that would clean up and stabilize neighborhoods and grow tax base.
  • Threats

 

  • My Take
  • Politics that might resist change or risk taking, infrastructure issues.

All in all, a terrific night…next week my trip to Naples 5th Avenue and the power of collaboration.

 

 

 

Collaboration Key to Success

collaboration

I recently had an opportunity to meet and talk with a diverse group of Lake Worth business leaders.

They were a mixture of retailers, restauranteurs and service providers, mostly from the downtown core.

They are a motivated group, eager to see their city grow, thrive and succeed. You can’t help but get swept up in their enthusiasm and passion for their city. They are hungry and you have to be hungry to succeed.

I’ve always liked Lake Worth.

The city has an amazing array of assets: two main streets (Lake and Lucerne), a beautiful beach and casino, a fun pier, a nice waterfront park and golf course, cute cottages, a vibrant art scene, some great restaurants and some nice festivals including the Street Painting Festival which is a whole lot of fun.

I’m part of a team that is trying to restore the historic Gulfstream Hotel on Lake Avenue. It’s a fun and challenging project and I’ve learned a whole lot about historic preservation, design and what it takes to build a successful hotel in today’s world.

A project like the Gulfstream would be a no-brainer in a place like Delray or Boca, established markets and proven destinations for tourists.

But in Lake Worth, The Gulfstream is being viewed as a catalyst, a market maker so to speak.

The risks are greater and so are the challenges. But the rewards, if successful, are that much more satisfying.

In Delray, I’ve seen entrepreneurs succeed and fail: especially when we were more of a start-up city; back when we were excited and confident but not quite 100 percent sure about whether the vision for the downtown would take root.

I saw many early pioneers open shops and restaurants and then go out of business—with the common lament that “they were just a little ahead of their time.” And I saw others make bets that paid off beyond their wildest imaginations.

On our beach, I grew to become great friends with Perry Don Francisco, the managing partner of the landmark Boston’s on the Beach. Perry and I were reminiscing last week and talking about the “early years”. He virtually lived at the restaurant—in a third floor apartment. At that time, Boston’s was a breakfast place, a lunch spot, a dinner destination, a nightclub, a caterer, a bar and a host to private parties. Eventually, Perry added the upper deck for fine dining and then an outdoor bar. Oh and there was a small hotel out back. Whew!

He juggled all of those different businesses and found time to serve on city boards, start a police support group, attend myriad chamber of commerce meetings and give to every worthwhile charity that helped kids and the community.

He was there during the struggle; he believed, he engaged and he made it happen. But it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight.

Next door, Fran Marincola came from a Jersey boardwalk and opened a gelato shop that ultimately became the award winning Caffe Luna Rosa. Did he envision lines out the door for brunch when he started out almost 30 years ago, probably not? But it happened and along the way, he went out of his way to be involved in building the town through service on the Parking Board (talk about excitement), the Downtown Development Authority, Delray Marketing Cooperative, Beach Property Owners Association, DELPAC. the Sandoway House among other causes. He lives and breathes Delray and has helped employees find homes and a life in this community.

Further on up the street, it’s nice to see long time merchants like Hand’s and Vince Canning Shoes working well alongside new shops.

In Pineapple Grove, people scoffed when Scott Porten and Morgan Russell proposed “CityWalk”, which has given us great stores, services and a personal favorite Brule.

We saw the Miami City Ballet come and go, the Esplanade plaza change hands a few times and then flower with a gym, Christina’s, Papas Tapas, a Mystery Book Store and more.

The sky was supposed to fall when the old Post Office left. We fought to keep it, calling our reps in Congress, but Pineapple Grove made it and now the nooks and crannies; Artist’s Alley, Third and Third and the Arts Warehouse feel alive. There’s even rumors of a food market coming to a neighborhood that had been dormant for years.

There’s more to do, of course. Federal Highway is going to thrive, South of the Avenue is on its way and investment is coming to West Atlantic Avenue. Keep your eye on Northwest/Southwest 5th Avenue as well. We have a great CRA and they are focused.

So as I meet more and more people in Lake Worth, I think about my experiences in Delray Beach in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Each city needs to find its own distinctive personality and leverage its own strengths, but there’s a commonality in what it takes to make it happen.

A great Police Department is essential.  People have to feel safe to visit, live, shop and invest. A friendly city government is also a must. That means a staff and elected leadership that doesn’t lower standards or cut corners but works hard to make deals happen and to shape positive outcomes that benefit both the business owner and the community. Yes, it’s possible.

And most importantly a supportive community that shops locally, welcomes entrepreneurs and supports them in ways large and small. The community piece is vital. A group friend told me recently that “money is fungible; it goes where it’s welcome.”

That saying resonates, so before intractable opposition forms, it is important for community leaders to get out front with a message of “how may we help you” versus “we’re going to stop you” or “you are on your own, good luck.” Again that does not mean lowering standards, but it does mean an attitude of trying to solve problems collaboratively, a distinction that many cities miss.

Can Lake Worth do it?

Absolutely.

We are betting on it.